The venture is the brainchild of Christian Borys, a former Canadian-based journalist who spent years covering conflicts in Ukraine and beyond. Part of the profits are used to support Ukraine. Borys helped create the image as it is known today – an image that now features on countless laptops, t-shirts, flags, murals and even tattoos around the world. His growing team expanded the roster of Armed Saints, selling branded stickers, accessories and apparel primarily online. On the company’s website, he summed up the mission in one sentence: “We are in business to rebuild Ukraine.”
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He’s not an artist, but rather a specific type of storyteller eager to hook people on an issue by grabbing their attention with something absurd, funny, or shocking. The campaign was so effective that it earned Borys a place on Russia’s official blacklist.
“It just shows the importance of what you can do with something that is, in reality, so dumb,” Borys said in a phone interview in July. “And then the Russians got so pissed off that they banned us.”
Still on the rise, funds raised by the Saint Javelin campaign have gone towards everything from mental health charities to armor purchases for Ukrainian forces to country drone program via United24, an initiative led by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The plan for Saint Javelin comes from artist Chris Shaw’s series of Madonnas in 2012. Shaw painted images of Mary holding objects like a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, a suicide vest, and a rifle. Online, the image became a meme and the rifle was replaced with a javelin. It was this version that Borys encountered in early 2022 and used as a starting point for his campaign. In February, Saint Javelin went viral, and in April, Shaw released his own version of her.
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“Maybe it was a vain attempt to somehow salvage my art from the internet,” Shaw wrote on his personal website on April 3. “Or maybe it was just that the first viral tampering was a bit sloppy in places.”
Shaw’s painting is on loan to the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. In its description of the piece, the museum notes Saint Javelin’s place in a long history of images of Mary used in wartime. “The use of images of Christian saints and the Virgin Mary to inspire action and foster hope in war dates back centuries,” they write.
Pseudo-prayers and heartfelt messages of thanks to Saint Javelin are easy to find online, but despite the cult, the campaign is not without its critics. When a Saint Javelin mural was completed in the Ukrainian capital in May by Kyiv-based art group Kailas-V, the saint’s halo was mysteriously obliterated. The group reportedly blamed the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko.
“Saint Javelin the Scandalous,” joked Borys Twitter in response to criticism in May.
The question of whether the image is blasphemous is centuries old, according to Nora M. Heimann, associate professor of art history at Catholic University.
“You’ve been entering a wake since Marian imagery has existed: is it even acceptable to portray Mary?” asked Heimann. “I mean, these are age-old discourse sources,” she said.
Because Saint Javelin’s style is clearly inspired by Byzantine and Orthodox depictions of Mary, Heimann said it makes sense that some might find it offensive or blasphemous. Borys argues that the decision to use the image of Mary was not born out of blasphemy or disrespect.
“Obviously it’s a joke picture, right?” Borys said. “It’s a meme. It’s the way people talk on the internet.
What started as a highly specialized online gungroup chat joke has become a global brand. Borys has a physical office and storefront in Toronto, rents coworking space in Lviv, and owns makers throughout Ukraine. Saint Javelin is now his full-time job. He hopes to continue to grow the movement and gain more support for the resistance.
“A million dollars is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to fighting a war,” he said.
Joshua Carroll contributed to this report.